Rustic and me…


The night before my intrepid daughter left for East Africa for three months we sat in my family room and checked off all necessities: passport, license, cash, stuff sacks, prophylactic antibiotics… the list was endless.

As I said goodnight, satisfied that there would be no panic when we woke at 5:15 am to head to JFK, Grace tilted her head as if in sudden discovery, “Mom, Thanksgiving’s going to be hard for you this year.”

“Aw, I guess so, kid. I’ll be alright.”

I was surprised on that warm September night that with a mountain of adventure in front of her she thought of me, at all.  It made me miss her already.

She went on, “I feel bad, Grandma died on Thanksgiving.”

Indeed, thirteen years ago, just past 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, my mother exhaled her last breath.  From that moment, Thanksgiving was never the same for me.  My world became untethered and has remained a bit wobbly ever since.

I looked at the beautiful face of my soon to be absent child and said, “Yeah, honey.  Thanksgiving isn’t really my favorite thing, but I’ll be fine.

And, in a strident, my kid is now an activist fashion, Grace waved her concerns away, “Actually, when you think about it, Thanksgiving is really only a celebration of the slaughter of indigenous Americans.”

Yup, my girl was ready to go; mentally prepared to find out what the great expanse of the world had in store for her.

I shared that story with a friend.  You know, the “take the bull by horns” kind of friend we all ought to have on our Board of Directors of Friends.  Without hesitation, she offered this, “Well, Greg, my mom and I go to Vermont every Thanksgiving. Join us.”

I knew this tradition of Jen’s.  Once the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving’s morphed into too much effort and precarious family dynamic, Jen and her immediate’s turned the holiday on its head and treated themselves to dinner and an overnight stay at the iconic Equinox Hotel in Manchester.  I envied her freedom in this and now that I would be unfettered for Thanksgiving, the temptation of it propelled determination.

I found a cabin.  A remote cabin in the woods outside of Manchester where I could bring my Labrador and I grabbed it.  I threw a gauntlet at the feet of Thanksgiving and booked it for Tuesday thru Friday.  That’s right, loneliness be damned, I would write and hike and build fires and feed the rustic woman within.

Ugh…. If you don’t know yourself by 55, well…

My Labrador Seamus and I arrived just as the sun set in Manchester, and then added about 45 minutes to the four-hour journey as I drove up and down route 30 squinting to identify the beaver pond where I was supposed to take a left down a dirt road where my cabin awaited.  Beaver Pond?  The only beaver I could identify appeared on a Saturday morning cartoon of my youth.  Does a beaver pond look different than the other ponds I passed in the shadow of Bromley Mountain?

The owners may as well have said, “take a left at the cow” for what sense it made to me. My bladder inspired me while my impatient Lab panted in my ear and I finally took a chance on a promising dirt road.  The second house on the left looked vaguely like the perfectly photographed cabin from HomeAway and the key was in the right place.  Loaded down like a Sherpa, Seamus and I tumbled through the door and took in our home for the next four days.

Ah… HomeAway or VBRO or really any realtor can make a place look as charming as your heart’s desire.  The right angle of a camera and your Visa number is flying off the keyboard.

I was thinking Rustic,  the new millennium.  It didn’t take long to figure out that this was 1980’s rustic.  Really, it was a box of wood with exposed beams and a magnificent hearth that was promising, but when I spotted the antler chandelier, the decorative corn husks hanging on the wall, Indian symbol lampshade with a tear, and a coffee table wrapped in dead animal skin, I burst into tears. Through the haze of water, I noticed that there were no blinds or curtains on the main windows that faced Route 30.

Rustic? New millennium?  More Like Rustic Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery!

Seamus was non-plussed.

I could turn around, hop in the car and head back.   I owned my life now.  I had options.

Then I remembered the pictures on HomeAway. There’s a bedroom somewhere; a magnificent bedroom and master bath with a Vermont-y comforter and enormous jacuzzi tub.  I scanned the square room and saw no door. Hmm…

Aha! There were stairs leading down.  But not your regular stairs.  They were split half-log that spiraled.  I gingerly headed down, while Seamus began to whine.

“It’s ok, buddy,” I implored as I reached the bottom.  “You can come down.”  Seamus would have none of it.  He turned tail at the top of the treacherous stairway and my dream of a beautiful sleep evaporated.

Here’s the thing about Seamus and me.  I am his human and while a bout with Lyme Disease ended his shape next to mine in my king size bed, he still slept on the floor by my side every night.  The magnificent bedroom on the lower level? Sleep would be but a dream with a whiney Labrador through the night.

I maneuvered my way back up the stairs, poured myself a glass of wine and thought,  What would Diane Keaton do?

True confessions; in the movie of my life, I imagine Diane Keaton as me: plucky, smart, and quirky with just the right amount of toughness and tenderness. One minute she is eviscerating a bad actor in her life with smart dialogue and the next she’s weeping over her laptop as she pours her soul out to her readers.

God, I love Diane Keaton!

I know she’d have a glass of wine and as I took my first sip, the phone rang, “Ellen, It’s Esther!  I wanted to make sure you made it to the Honeymoon Cottage safely.

Of course, the name of the homeowner is old-school Esther.

“Oh, Thanks, Esther, ” I said as a dabbed my leaking eyeballs

“Everything okay? We hope you love our home as much as we do.”

My defenses were down, “Oh, It’s great Esther.  Just lovely.” I felt a fake smile take over my face.

“Well, just make yourself a big old fire, take a nice jacuzzi and enjoy!”

“Thanks, Esther, will do.”

Diane Keaton, Diane Keaton….

Diane Keaton would make a fire.  Anyone can make a fire, right?  Sure, A fire would warm the freezing space up and set me in the right direction.

There was wood, lots of it, stacked outside.  I grabbed a pile of logs, brought them in the house, and placed them on the floor.  Firestarter? Kindling?  I know these rustic terms and I scanned the room confident that I could accomplish this one Vermont-y task.  Nope, nothing.  No sticks, no newspaper, no tools of the trade to be found.

Now the tears exploded out of my eyeballs.

I phoned a friend.  A fella I know in Vermont.  A rustic type.

“Hey, It’s Ellen.” The sobbing took but a moment to burst.

“Are you crying?  What’s wrong? Are you okay?

“I’m just…. I’m at my rental, and I can’t make a fire, and I think Davy Crockett lived here, and I hate it, and, I JUST WANNA GO HOME.”

“Okay. Umm.  I’ve never heard you like this before, do you want me to come down?”

“No, I’ll be fine,” I said pathetically.

“Good.  No kindling?  Get back in your car, go to the local store and by yourself a Duraflame log.”

Of course.  God!  Diane Keaton would have thought of that!

I chatted a little longer with my friend and found my bearings. Seamus and I hopped back into my Subaru, bought a box of Duraflame’s and the fire has been roaring ever since.

That night, I took the twin mattress off the daybed on the lower level, awkwardly dragged it up the spiral staircase and set it before the hearth.  Seamus has woken me each morning at about 8:15 with a lick and my eyes open to a sun-drenched room.  We hiked and cooked and my writing has been voluminous.

Yesterday, the very day my daughter so lovingly referred to in September, I met my dear friend and her family at the exquisite Equinox Hotel.  I met them in the lobby and clung to each of them as though they were the only humans I had seen in days.  It was true!  We stuffed ourselves with magnificent food and fine wine and Thanksgiving was good this year.

Seamus and I made it through and today we will say goodbye to our rustic adventure. I will leave a fine review for Esther, with a nod to the fact that while I think of myself as a Renaissance woman, I am not so much a woman of the North Country. However, I now fancy myself quite an expert of the hearth.   And that’s okay. Next Thanksgiving, we’ll try something new.

As for my brave, adventuresome daughter. She comes home in just about a month.  The fact that she cared at all about my Thanksgiving was enough for me this year!

Of Mothers and Memories…


My mother passed away 11 years ago on Thanksgiving night.  I struggle to remember the exact date of her death.  The anniversary of it is inextricably attached to Thanksgiving.

She was diagnosed with Adrenal Cortical Cancer in late September. The following nine weeks are a confabulation of disturbed memory and racing recollections of traveling to and from Rhode Island.  Weekends were spent with my dying mother and distraught father, and weekdays trying to refocus on my family.  My children were so young that my daughter has little memory of a grandmother who loved her in a special way. She was the only granddaughter in the mix of boys. Grace was 6 years old on Thanksgiving night 2005.

When I cleaned my mom’s closet out weeks after her death, I found a stockpile of beautiful, expensive dresses, sweaters, and coats that would see Grace through several years of special occasions.  A corner of the closet was filled with precious items which surely cost too much.  My daughter was something of a life-size doll for both my mom and me.  Grace knew indulgence in fashion from the moment she was born.

After the whirlwind of wake and funeral, as I tried to settle into a life absent my mother, I received cards on a daily basis for weeks.  My father, in his heartbreak and with a slow shake of his bald head, would repeat this mantra in response to the outpouring of condolence, “People are awfully good.”

There was one such card that affected me more than any other.  I thought I had saved it, but could not find it, as I sifted through special things this week.  It doesn’t matter. While the words may be imprecise, the message is indelible.
My friend, Betsy, who lost her mom as a young woman, shared this sentiment (now paraphrased):

“When your mother dies, you lose your North Star; your guiding light.  For some time, you will find yourself imbalanced, your navigation will be off.  Regardless of your age, it changes your world.  It is only understood by those who are motherless.”

That beautiful letter moved into my soul the moment I read it on a cold, quiet December afternoon.  I was 43 when I lost my mom and Betsy’s letter was like a gift. Even in my incalculable grief, I understood that the death of one’s mother is an equalizing human experience.  In the natural course of living, parents pass before their children.  All of my friends and cousins who still had their mom’s, who sympathized, but could not empathize with the depth of my loss, would someday experience the same.  To be sure, I was imbalanced for quite some time when my mother left this earth.

In the last two years, I have attended too many funerals, watched too many friends and cousins say goodbye to too many mothers.  It feels like time to take a cue from Betsy.

My mother’s greatest gift to me was her example of faith.  She was an epic church goer, a Catholic from the tips of her toes to the top of her head.  I am not any of those things, but there is a moment I call upon when my own struggle is mighty.  My mom might say this moment was the work of The Holy Spirit.

Despite the fact that I had philosophical issues with the “Big C” Catholic Church, my local parish had been home to me.  I was a catechist and you could find my family, 6th row left of center, each Sunday morning at 9 am.  I loved the ritual of the Catholic mass. The predictability and familiarity of the liturgy were like meditation for me. Once my mother passed, church became impossible; the smell of incense or a single organ note undid me.  I vividly remember that first Christmas Eve, entering the church with my family, finding our pew and, as the congregation settled in, the choir led with “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”  Grief grabbed me by the throat and I let go of my 6-year-old daughter’s plump, impossibly soft hand and made my way out of the church with as much dignity as I could muster. The cold night air was a welcome relief, and I wept as I walked the parking lot for the hour it took for mass to be over.  The strains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and my mother’s favorite Christmas Hymn, “O Holy Night”, wafted from the Church into the night air. Each note like a stab into my already broken heart. I knew then, that Church would never be the same for me again.

For two months following my mom’s death, night was my demon.  I battled through the daylight hours, but once my head hit the pillow, unsummoned tears would leak from my eyes and my mind raced around every detail of the previous months.  Exhaustion ushered me to sleep, but dreams of my mother woke me nearly each night.  I dreamt, not of my mother as I knew her, but of the diminished her, twisted with the pain of cancer that consumed her body.  It was as though I never knew her whole.  Her pain was a nightly visitor.

The first waking moments for those grieving are predictable.  It takes but a moment of consciousness to remember the pain that has been dreamt away in the deepness of sleep.  As consciousness nears, the ache rebuilds.  I woke most mornings of those two months willing fresh tears away.

As the world turned to a new year, a challenge I was not ready for presented itself.  My husband’s father had died the previous January.  He was a kind, benevolent, smart, wonderful soul.  A Mass of Memorium was scheduled on the anniversary of his death.  I could not fathom surviving it.  I wanted to summon the courage I knew I needed to do the thing I knew was right.  I spent the week before oddly “psyching myself up” to gut it out for him, to be an example for my children.  The night before, I crawled into bed and prayed that I could be relieved, Dear God, just once, of dreams of my sick mother.  I fell asleep that mid-January night, determined to rise to the occasion regardless of which visitors came to me in my sleep.

All I can remember of that night is that when I woke tears did not well, nor did bad dreams fly to my consciousness.  What did was this:

My mother and I walking the boardwalk of Weekapaug’s Fenway Beach, both of us carrying beach chairs in our hands.  The sun was high and the sand was soft and my mom looked lovely, in her skirted bathing suit and white cover-up.  We set our chairs down, side by side, and the waves were gentle and our toes massaged the sand.  That’s all I recall of my dream on that January night, and it is enough.

I believe that The Holy Spirit visited me that night.  That my mother sent me a message that went like this: “All is well with me, and you will be fine.  Go be who you need to be. Don’t worry anymore.”

And I did.  I went and honored my father-in-law in the way that he deserved.  Any tears I shed in the church were for the memory of him.

My grief did not end that January night; it remains in my soul.  My friend, Betsy, was right.  I lost my North Star when my mother passed.  I am not so sure, 11 years later, that my navigational ability has improved.  I remain a bit unsettled but feel as though I am finding my way.

I dedicate this writing to the women in my life whom I love.  Many of you have lost your North Stars.  Many of you have yet to.  In your grief or grief to come, I wish you peace and the surety that the Holy Spirit is present.  I have experienced him/her many times since that January night in 2006.  Listen for it in your sadness, be open to it in your grief.  What a lovely gift for a mother to a daughter. It is as precious as the perfectly smocked dresses my mother bought her grandchild 12 years ago. It is as perfect as a lovely, handwritten note from a friend that would resonate in my heart forever.

Food , Glorious Food

Several years ago I had the great fortune to direct a middle school production of “Oliver!”  Little did Charles Dickens know that this dark story of orphaned boys in early 19th century London would be brought to life with such grandeur.  Notably, The opening number, “Food, Glorious, Food!”  perfectly captures the yearning for comfort food.  So good is that opening that you can almost taste the morsels which make the sooty-faced orphans pine.  Do we eat to live or live to eat?

When my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in September of 2005, it took nearly 3 weeks for the doctors to make an accurate prognosis.  It was imperative that they find the source of the initial cancerous cells first. That wait was almost inhumane, but my mother bore it with remarkable stoicism.  I suppose she knew that the cause mattered not at all, the result would be the same regardless of where those insidious buggers began their destruction.  Of all the Irish luck,  the roulette wheel landed on the adrenal gland, giving her an extraordinarily rare cancer with little evidence of successful treatment, and no positive outcome at the stage 4 level.  The prognosis was 3 months to live.

My mother, father and I left that prognosis meeting in silence, each of us digesting the news which was delivered with compassion by an oncologist whose name I don’t even recall.  We drove the 10 miles from his office to my parent’s suburban colonial, each in our own stillness  Mom was exhausted when we got home and went directly upstairs.  Not knowing what else to do, I followed her and asked her what she would like for dinner.  Seems a silly question in light of the news, but dinner plans were important in my Irish Catholic home.  Throughout my life the day seem to start with the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?”

She sat on her bed,  thought carefully and said, “I think I’d like some meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.”  Okay then, that was easy enough.  I ran out to the market and got the goods and prepared while she napped, while my poor dad sat in the den struggling to wrap his mind around the inevitable.  

Meatloaf is best made with your hands; it’s nearly impossible to meld the hamburger, onions, eggs and breadcrumbs properly with a spoon and my mom’s kitchen had no such modern convenience as the Kitchen Aid mixer.  The old fashioned way was best, and there was something cathartic in preparing that loaf and finally pressing it into a bread pan, topping it with a Heinz Ketchup glaze and setting it in the 350 degree oven.  Mashed potatoes are more work and in my mom’s kitchen the Foley ricer was the tool of mashed potatoes.  Once they were boiled, peeled and cut, the stainless steel contraption would do its magic, smoothing out the potatoes so that just the right amount of milk and butter would create a creamy, fluffy concoction.  Green beans take no effort at all.  A quick boil and shake of salt and there you are.

Mom had lost significant weight in the months before diagnosis and her appetite had dwindled significantly since the word Cancer had been introduced nearly a month before.  In a twist of Irony, she often mused that she wished she had eaten what she wanted during her middle years, rather than battle her weight.  Juicy hamburgers and creamy sauces on pasta were traded for white fish and chicken, chicken, chicken after a heart attack stopped her in her tracks in her early fifties.  She survived the heart scare and thought perhaps that might be enough medical complication for a lifetime. There is a hint in there somewhere that we ought to live a little more freely while we may.

I prepared her plate of food, which she wanted to eat in her room.  On the tray, I put a placemat, silverware and a cloth napkin with a sterling silver ring.  A small glass of whole milk was a bonus and I carried it up the stairs carefully.  She was awake, but lying down when I walked in.  Upon my entrance, she scooched up and rearranged her pillows.  In that moment, she may as well have been just battling a cold or the flu.  Regardless of the dire information of the day, her countenance was peaceful, tired, but she was, as always, receptive and polite.  You could almost forget in that moment that the number of nights in the home she lived for 45 years were nearly over;   that nights of peaceful sleep were now numbered.  She asked me to put the tray by her side in the empty space to her right.  

I sat on the floor next to her for thirty minutes or so, but we did not talk of cancer or doctors or what happens next.  As I remember it, we spoke of my children and how long I would stay this visit. We planned my return the following weekend.

Mom didn’t touch a morsel of that meal on that October night.  Nor did she eat a bite of the roast chicken, baked potato and broccoli I made a week later.  Same for the pork chops, applesauce and potato she requested subsequently.  Her appetite was long gone now, and her tastebuds were muddled with medication.  It took me some time to understand that it was the smell of those comfort foods she craved; the soothing effect that comes from the aroma of the foods we love.

Mom passed away not 7 weeks later on the greatest food day of all time: Thanksgiving.  I’ve grown to love the irony.  Her death was met with kindness to my dad from all corners, and that kindness came often in the form of food.  His freezer was filled for almost year with casseroles, lasagna, chicken parmesan, chili,  and creamy soups.  Not a soul worried for him about carbohydrates, salt or sugar intake.  Not one person prepared white fish for him in the year following my mother’s passing.  Food, high calorie, delicious food, was their show of love.

This musing of mine is brought on as I watch Uncle Bobby’s appetite dwindle to nothing.  His most notable activity each day is to go to breakfast and dinner at the assisted living home.  He gave up lunch months ago, and sustains himself midday with Oreo’s and Fig Newtowns.  He will occasionally slip in a wedge of apple in a nod to health.  I puzzle at the menu at “Maplewood”, as it reflects our generations obsession with healthy eating.  The menu is fancy and announces “farm to table freshness”.  It’s impressive in its breadth and attention to detail, but Uncle Bobby and his dining companions often comically remark on the offerings.  

“What’s this, Fra Diavolo with roasted red peppers?”

“”Sea Bass? Where’s the fish and chips?”

“Since when did brussel sprouts become popular?”

I get the marketing of assisted living.  I understand that the elegant presentation in the dining room is not really for the residents, but rather the families who are trying to come to peace with the fact that the comfort of home is gone now for these elderly loved ones.  So while I understand it, I wish I had the courage to march into that kitchen and meet the chef face to face and announce, “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, hotdogs with mustard and relish, spaghetti and meatballs.  That’s what they want!”

But like Dicken’s orphans, they will push their fancified gruel around the plate, and fill their imaginations with the glorious food they loved throughout their lives.  If they are like Uncle Bobby, they will wish for the midday to come so they can inhale some Oreo’s or Fig Newtowns, or his other guilty pleasure: buttery Ritz Crackers.  Food, Glorious Food, Indeed!